Delegates from 18 spacefaring countries, the European Space Agency, and the European Commission held an unprecedented meeting in Washington this week to discuss ways of cooperating with the new space exploration program on which the United States is embarking. China was among the participants, even though political obstacles stand in the way of U.S.-Chinese space cooperation.
Officials of the U.S. space agency NASA describe the three-day conference ending Thursday as an exchange of information and ideas. Delegates from several western European space programs as well as those of Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Canada, China, India, Israel and South Korea explained what their space priorities are and how they might fit into the exploration plan announced by President Bush in January.
Mr. Bush outlined a program that would begin with robotic expeditions to the moon by 2008 and a return of U.S. astronauts to lunar soil as early as 2015. These missions would lay the groundwork for later human visits to Mars and other solar system destinations. Part of the president's charge was for NASA to seek international cooperation where possible.
The NASA official overseeing the program, Craig Steidle, said the Washington conference discussed the human exploration strategies of the various countries, ways robotic missions could support exploration, current national research and development programs in these areas, and how countries could collaborate on space projects. "The surprise I had was I thought we would have a difficult time pulling out the sharing of information and roadmaps [future plans]. We did not have that. There was an open atmosphere and everyone was very aggressively sharing their particular road maps and plans and programs and the problems that they have with some of them," he said.
Mr. Steidle said the meeting clarified areas where countries were duplicating each other's efforts, offering potential areas of integration, particularly in the U.S. program. "We've got a lot of systems to develop. For instance, we have a robotic lunar orbital mission as well as a lander. There are other countries interested in doing the same, so it's a great opportunity to have partners, not subcontractors. There are several missions that can be done and handled by others who can help lower the risk of our particular pieces, and that's what we're trying to explore," he said.
NASA invited China's space agency to the space meeting, although current relations between Washington and Beijing are strained over Chinese exports of missile technology. The Bush administration says such exports hamper bilateral relations because they could be used in weapons of mass destruction.
NASA external affairs chief Michael O'Brien said the administration cleared China's participation in the conference because the meeting did not lead to agreements to embark on specific projects. "When we get to that point, we will certainly have to answer those questions, which are good ones. There are barriers and challenges that we need to overcome. We feel that with men and women of good will around the world working towards these common objectives of exploration and the betterment of humankind, we will be able to overcome these particular barriers," he said.
Working groups assigned at the Washington conference will meet several times in the coming year to discuss various ways technical cooperation can be achieved with the U.S. space plan.